Adopting Eighty Year Olds: A Review of “Soft In The Head”

Affection is something that grows on the quiet, it takes root without you knowing, then overruns the place worse than Japanese knotweed. By then, it’s too late: you can’t dose your heart with Roundup to weed out feelings.

– Marie-Sabine Roger, Soft In The Head

Soft In The Head by Marie-Sabine Roger, is one of the most brilliant books you will read this year, or likely read in your entire life. So few books have the same ability to warm your heart as this one does, and I can’t help but want to share this book with everyone I know.

Soft In The Head follows the story of Germain, a man on the wrong side of forty, who finds himself out of place in his own social world. Dubbed a ‘worthless halfwit’ by his mother, abandoned by his father before he was even born, and the constant butt of his own drunkard friends’ jokes, Germain is a man who is not afraid to tell it like it is, even if he is not quite sure what it is. Yet one day, in amongst his quest to have his name etched on the town war memorial, feeding the pigeons and whittling pieces of wood into beautiful figures, Germain finds the best thing to happen to him – Margueritte, an eighty five year old woman sitting on a park bench. The book goes on to tell the story of their relationship, each teaching the other what they have to offer, and learning how the smallest encounters can change their way of looking at the world, and bring happiness where there was none.

This is a book that climbs into your heart and sets up camp there for long after you have turned the final page. The whole time I was reading it, I was mesmerised by the gentle and understated loveliness of it. The prose is true and honest and deeply specific to its narrator, whilst feeling comfortable and familiar at the same time – a striking balance that I have to commend Marie-Sabine Roger for.

The protagonist and narrator, Germain, is easily one of my favourite first person narrators in fiction. With a voice somewhere between that of the narrators of The Rosie Project and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Germain is unabashedly honest in his way of looking at things, unafraid to be himself in a world that does not always accept people with mental disabilities. And then there is Margueritte, the loveliest eighty five year old you could possibly imagine. Germain’s determination to adopt her as his grandmother (a funny turn on the adoptive family idea), is one of the most wonderful things I have ever read. I could not help but laugh as Germain set about his idea to adopt Margueritte, “just in case”.

But what strikes me about this book the most is the way it shines a glowing spotlight on the myriad of relationships it describes. No relationship in this book is perfect – in fact, they are all incredibly messy and troubled. But they are all filled with something unique and special, and no two are the same. Marie-Sabine Roger has created a group of people who reflect human relationships in a tender and heartfelt way, without sugar coating the troubles that come with being human. Soft In The Head is about affection, and the way you don’t even notice your deep affectionate attachments with people until it is too late, and you are stuck with the people you though you didn’t like, but realise you can’t live without.

A special thanks goes to the translator, Frank Wynne, who has skilfully translated this beautiful piece of French literature to English. As always, I am astounded and extremely grateful for the work of translators of fiction, and knowing how happy this book made me, I cannot thank Wynne enough for bringing this story to English language readers.

If you are looking for something unique, brilliant, and full of affection and light, I cannot recommend this book enough. Marie-Sabine Roger has delivered perhaps one of the greatest stories in modern literature with such gentle care and I know that it will stay with me for a very long time.

 

Soft In The Head is now available from Pushkin Press’ online shop or in all good bookstores. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores.

Thank you once again to Pushkin Press for sending me a copy of Marie-Sabine Roger’s Soft In The Head. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.

 

© Hayley New 2016

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Walking My City: A Review of Lauren Elkin’s “Flâneuse”

Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.

That is an imaginary definition.

– Lauren Elkin

Lauren Elkin’s latest release, Flâneuse, is quite possibly the best reading experience I have had all year. Part memoir, part cultural history, part commentary, Flâneuse recounts the experiences of women and their relationships with the cities they lived and worked in.

Being a dual English Lit and Cultural Studies major at University, the idea of the flâneur is not new to me – most of the books I read for class are written by the great flâneurs of literature. But it was Elkin’s take on flânerie that really appealed to me when I found this book tucked in the back corner of my favourite bookshop. Putting women at the forefront of her work, Elkin gives space to some of the greatest and yet most underrated women artists in our history.

As a female writer, I was particularly struck by this book’s focus on the way in which female flânerie was linked so closely with the creative self, and how walking the city, becoming part of its social landscape is described as an artistic venture. Beginning with her own writing and her creative experiences in Paris and New York, Elkin describes some of the greatest cities on Earth and their inexplicable ties to human experience, art and creative cultural expression. In many ways, Flâneuse can be read as a love letter to Elkin’s most familiar city, Paris. Having lived there for a considerable time now, Elkin maps her own cultural and creative journey onto the city and its history, describing the city’s magnificent past and the women who used Paris as their own space for art and revolution.

But Flâneuse moves beyond Paris, stretching its arms out to New York, London, Venice and Tokyo, and even to your own cities. Elkin is sure never to get in the way of your own experiences, instead challenging you to pay attention to the way you interact with your city, and how you move through it. Whilst reading this book, I found myself paying particular attention to the ways in which I interact with my city, its culture and its creative landscape, the ways in which my femaleness is framed in the social spaces I inhabit. Flâneuse is as much a challenge to think about embodiment and inhabiting spaces as it is a record of cultural creativity and fluid cityscapes.  

Elkin’s prose is some of the best writing I have come across, particularly in Non-Fiction. Her way of layering cultural history, commentary and autobiography is unique and I was mesmerised by her talent for honest storytelling as I was reading. Through her writing, Elkin is an everywoman, but one with a special flair for sharing her thoughts in a respectful but confident way. There are moments in her writing that remind me of the same sort of tone as Caitlin Moran, but Elkin has a more polished voice, one that has been sanded around the edges by time, where Caitlin Moran boldly refuses to be shaped by anyone. Having never come across Elkin before this novel, I was astounded to find myself comparing her to my other female role models and favourite feminist writers, but looking back on my reading experience, I don’t doubt that gut instinct to put her up there on that list. Elkin is a genius, and I am incredibly grateful for her writing, and the personal and cultural history behind this book.

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Flâneuse is now available from Penguin Random House or in all good bookstores. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores.

© Hayley New 2016

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World: A Review

 

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, the newest picture book from writer and illustrator Kate Pankhurst, is a glorious celebration of the lives of famous female historical figures. As a descendant of the famous Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, it is clear to see where Pankhurst gets her inspiration for a book such as this, and her skill and talent for telling these women’s stories – stories that in many cases have been kept out of the history books for a long time – is incredible.

The list of women included in this book is extensive: Jane Austen, Gertrude Ederle, Coco Chanel, Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, Mary Anning, Mary Seacole, Amelia Earhart, Agent Fifi, Sacagawea, Emmeline Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, and Anne Frank are all given a place in this magnificent history of brilliant and courageous women doing magnificent things. These women all come from different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, allowing women whose voices have traditionally not been given room to be heard in history books to be heard.

But what gets me most about this book is its intended audience – children. As a picture book, and a beautifully designed and illustrated one at that, this book is written for children. So rarely are stories like those of the women included in this book shared with children, and I am so endlessly grateful that Kate Pankhurst wrote this book for them. To introduce children to books and stories with these women, to show them how incredible women have been and continue to be, is so vitally important, and Pankhurst’s book is a brilliant part of that journey. When I first received this book for review, the first thing I said to my Mum was “I wish a book like this had been around when I was growing up.” Because, honestly, they weren’t – and it wasn’t really that long ago that I was a young kid looking for strong, intelligent and courageous women to look up to in books. I wish that in my many library visits, I could have found this book on the shelves and found myself in these women. I sincerely hope that libraries all over will take this book into their collection so that little girls the world over can find an array of female role models to look up to.

Even as an adult, reading this book was a fantastic educational experience. There are figures in this book that I never knew about, and even fun facts about famous women I have admired for a long time that I didn’t know. The illustrations were bright and beautifully drawn – with a quirky and charismatic style. There is no attempt to render women as traditionally beautiful in her illustrations, but rather a desire to make each woman unique and stylise her to best represent her story and the remarkable things she did in her lifetime.

On behalf of all the little girls (and boys) of the world, I am endlessly grateful for Kate Pankhurst and her work in creating this picture book. If even one little girl finds a feminist hero in her library because of this book, her work will have paid off.

 

great_wome_coverFantastically Great Women Who Changed The World (RRP $14.99) is available in all good book stores from October 2016, or directly from the publisher, Bloombury Publishing/Allen & Unwin, here

As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from, and support their local independent book stores.

Thank you once again to Allen & Unwin for sending me a copy of Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.

 

© Hayley New 2016